Can social Stories work for news organizations — without putting them on a platform?

On platforms like Snapchat and Instagram, Stories are cute — they’re perfectly designed for your phone’s screen, they can feel more narrative than disconnected posts, you can be pithy while still including more information than a regular post, and you can communicate more directly with your audience. But they also have drawbacks: the public can’t really see them after 24 hours, and they’re accessible only by users of those apps. Continue reading “Can social Stories work for news organizations — without putting them on a platform?”

The Guardian Mobile Lab’s latest experiment targets public transit commuters with an offline news app

Over the summer, the Guardian Mobile Innovation Lab hinted at its next experiment: improving the experience of consuming news when offline. Now it’s revealed the trial product, a news app that incorporates location sharing, content and time customizations, and user data transparency — but is only available for the next few months.

The Lab introduced LabRdr — which can apparently be pronounced like “lab reader” or “Labrador” or another general squish of consonants — on Wednesday. Designed for the public transit commuter who may lose cell service on the subway, for example, and then be left with nothing to read, the app prepares a “package” of Guardian content based on the user’s previous reads in the app and the current stories of the morning or evening. It’s delivered twice a day via push alert, at the times the user has specified they’re commuting; each package contains an amount of content that the app determines will be readable within the duration of each user’s commute.

And yep, location factors in. “We’re experimenting with making offline news reading easier and more relevant, through automatic personalizations of your reading package based on signals like your interests or, possibly in the future, your location and what’s being read nearby,” Mobile Lab editor Sasha Koren noted in the Medium announcement:

LabRdr’s approach to offline news reading is experimental, and different from existing offline news apps in a few ways: Rather than give you all current stories on every topic, it delivers only a self-contained package of Guardian articles keyed to your interests, twice a day just in time for your commute, at times you can specify.

As you use it, it learns what you like to read and delivers you content keyed to your interests. (We’re setting aside important conversations about filter bubbles for now to learn something about personalization.) In addition, we show you how we use the data you share with us, in an effort to enhance trust through transparency…

What we’re looking to learn

What makes a good content recommendation system for news? A lot of the existing work about content recommendations are around e-commerce and we’re interested in what signals are particularly good for news organizations and news reading.

We’re also looking to gauge readers’ reactions to the utility of having a short package of news defined for them for a set period of time. Without the option to read a full spectrum of articles on many topics, will they feel better informed with those they do read, or have a sense of achievement at completing a few articles in a set?

As with all our experiments, we’ll report on what we learn in follow-up posts after the app has been running for a while and we’ve collected and analyzed data and reactions.

LabRdr isn’t the first attempt at improving offline news. Way back in 2012, reading apps News.me and Instapaper both endeavored to serve the offline reader and relied on location to do so, but News.me didn’t survive a Twitter API update. Other apps like Pocket or Evernote require the readers themselves to do the legwork of saving the content for later perusing, rather than having relevant material presented to them.

Another difference is that the Mobile Lab is making an effort to share the data it collects through LabRdr. In a section of the app called the Log, you can view the tracked reading and commute patterns. “The app is a really good first step for gathering information, using it in a respectful way, and seeing how people feel about that,” said Sarah Schmalbach, co-leader of the Mobile Lab with Koren and its senior product manager. She pointed out that readers might feel different about sharing personal information with a news organization than they do about sharing it with, say, Google Maps or Amazon.

“If we can deliver news in more contextually relevant moments, then [will] that content be more valuable to the user?” wondered Connor Jennings, the app’s developer, who came up with the idea during his own frustrating experience reading offline news during his commute.

The team hopes to share its findings about reader trust, habit formation, and more with news organizations; the Mobile Lab is funded by the Knight Foundation (disclosure: Nieman Lab also receives funding from Knight) to explore solutions for the mobile news experience. But its sample will likely be restricted to those who commute using public transit, rather than people who drive, bike, or walk to work.

“It’s pretty narrow. We’re not targeting people who don’t commute; we’re not targeting people who commute by car. There’s a whole range of people we’re not gearing this toward,” Koren acknowledged.

LabRdr provides a “targeted product until we get better and deeper insights,” Schmalbach said. “We’re confident that the audience is big enough to get a big read on this content.”

Like the Mobile Lab’s other experiments — such as real-time Guardian commentary on a U.S. presidential debate via push alert; live push notifications with the Wall Street Journal — LabRdr is a temporary project. It will be removed from the App Store (it’s iPhone-only) after a couple of months.

Subway commuters by Susan Jane Golding used under a Creative Commons license.

Test it before you try it: Findings from the Engaging News Project’s homepage redesign study

A study comparing redesigns of homepages for news organizations in the United States and Canada found that contemporary designs with more images and less text resonate more with readers — but noted that experimenting with the redesign and doing before-and-after testing can reveal some helpful insights.

The Engaging News Project, an initiative of the University of Texas Austin, followed an unnamed major U.S. news organization and a similarly unnamed major Canadian news organization as they revamped their sites’ homepages. In each case, “two concurrent studies occurred. The first was an online survey-based experiment and the second was a live test conducted by the news organization.”

“Our results show that an online experiment can pick up on many of the same signals as a full launch of a site redesign,” Emily Van Duyn, a research associate for the Engaging News Project, said in a statement. “We believe that doing an online experiment could provide news organizations with a relatively inexpensive way to test out a redesign before a full launch.”

In the case of the Canadian redesign, both pageviews and the time spent by readers on the page were higher on the new site than on the old site. Readers were able to remember articles more effectively, potentially aided by a greater number of photos. The new site also replaced a grouping of 20 picture-less sections with nine sections labeled by topic and their own pictures.

The U.S. organization’s redesign did not result in higher visit times, but the bounce rate did rise. There was no major difference in recall rates.

The researchers considered potential reasons for improved article recall on the Canada site and plausible explanations for the U.S. site’s data.

Canadian site:

(1) Pictures increase recall. Six articles were recalled more frequently on the new site than the old one. In 28 of 30 observations (6 articles across 5 different time periods), these articles were accompanied by a picture on the new site, but not on the old site.
(2) No differences in recall when articles equally prominent on the old and new sites. Three articles were recalled at a similar rate for both the old and new sites. In 12 out of 15 observations, the articles were equally prominent on both sites. The Trudeau article, for instance, appeared in the top third of the page, in the first column, and had a photo on both sites for all time periods analyzed.
(3) Column on the page affects recall. Three articles were recalled more frequently on the old site than the new one. It is more difficult to explain why these articles were recalled more frequently on the old site. The best explanation seems to be the column in which the story appeared. In nine of 15 instances, the old site had the article in the more prominent first column reading from left to right. In three instances, the story appeared in an equally prominent column. And in three instances, the pattern is the reverse, where the new site had the article in a more prominent column

U.S. site:

(1) Pictures affect recall. The Putin article, better recalled on the new site, appeared with an image atop both the old and new sites. On the new site, however, there were no other images in the same row as the Putin story, while there was a competing image in the same row on the old site.
(2) The amount of scrolling matters. The Yellen article, better recalled on the new site, was featured at the top of the page on the new site, but was farther down the page on the old site. The rich banker, Indian overpass, and Syria stories required less scrolling on the old site compared to the new site. They also were better recalled on the old site.
(3) Column on the page affects recall. The Trump and China Xi stories, better recalled on the old site, appeared in a more left-hand column on the old site compared to the new.
(4) No differences in recall when articles equally prominent on the old and new sites. Just as we did on the Canadian site, we found on the U.S. site that the articles with no differences in recall (Trooper wounded, Megacopter) were similarly prioritized on the old and new sites.

Also, only 54 percent of participants in the Canada study knew what a hamburger menu was. (Hint: it’s the three horizontal lines that appear as a button to unleash the site’s list of section options. The question wasn’t asked on the U.S. side of the study.)

The Wall Street Journal shutters eight blogs: “The tools for telling” stories have changed

On the heels of ending its news digest app and fine-tuning its push notification strategy, The Wall Street Journal shut down eight blogs on Monday. Their topics ranged from legal news to the Chinese economy to arts, culture, and entertainment. The shutterings were another condensation of platforms in the Wall Street Journal’s digital strategy, folding coverage of the topic areas into the Wall Street Journal’s homepage.

One of the Wall Street Journal’s oldest blogs, the Law Blog launched in January 2006 with a “simple name but a novel approach to legal news in the pre-Twitter era,” the paper’s law bureau chief Ashby Jones wrote in the blog’s farewell note:

Law Blog was the first of its kind at the WSJ and was an immediate hit, attracting readers from all corners of the legal world. Its success helped usher in a sort of Golden Age for blogs at WSJ and encourage the growth of a wider, legal blogosphere.

China Real Time, launched before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and India Real Time, which came along in 2010, chronicled life in the growing economies for both local readers and an international audience. Beijing-based reporter Josh Chin noted the changing times in his blog’s farewell letter:

When this site was born, China’s GDP growth was in double digits, Beijing building toward the triumph of the Olympics and China-themed blogs were proliferating across the internet. Nine years later, China’s government is struggling to keep the economy growing above 6%, the Olympics are a fading memory and many a China blog has fallen silent.

The China story has changed, and so have the the tools for telling it. Regretfully, the time has come for China Real Time to end its run. We plan to transfer the same energy and insight that animated the blog to covering China on WSJ’s other platforms, including the main English and Chinese websites.

Wall Street Journal spokesperson Steve Severinghaus said that a total of eight verticals have been shuttered as part of the WSJ 2020 project, an internal operations review launched in October 2016. The other affected blogs are arts/culture/entertainment blog Speakeasy (last updated in March), Off Duty Daily (last updated in May 2016), breaking news hub Dispatch, sports blog The Daily Fix, and data review blog the Numbers (last updated in July 2016). “We’ll continue to cover these areas robustly through other storytelling formats and our digital platforms,” Severinghaus said in an email.

The statement sounds similar to things that New York Times staffers said around the shutdown of the City Room blog (2007–2015). “If it were 100 years ago, this would have lasted for 50 years, but the way technology changes and the way reader nature changes every five years now, its lifespan was just so much shorter,” New York Times metro editor Wendell Jamieson said at the time. “That doesn’t mean it wasn’t an important bridge, but it’s a different industry than it was when City Room launched. It’s truly the post-blog era, and I barely had time to get into the blog era.”

While the Wall Street Journal’s China and India bureaus and lead legal writers won’t be posting to the blogs anymore, the sites will remain live as archives. The social media accounts for the blogs will continue to be updated with relevant content from the Journal’s reporters, according to the blog posts announcing the closures. But for some followers, that’s not enough.

The corporate decision to shutter these blogs is another streamlining of the Journal’s platforms, days after the What’s News digest app ceased publication. Mobile editor Phil Izzo told my colleague Joseph Lichterman that the Wall Street Journal is aiming for flexibility with platforms while still maintaining autonomy over their content.

“What we’re trying to do is set up a place where we can make changes. We’re never going to be a tech company. We’re never going to be Google or Facebook. But what we can do is have more control over our product and more control over what we put out,” Izzo said last month.

As South Asia deputy bureau chief Eric Bellman said in the note announcing Real Time India’s end, the content will keep coming — just not on the blogs.

India Real Time started in 2010 as the first attempt by a global newspaper to offer a news product for Indian readers through the internet. Seven years and crores of clicks later, The Wall Street Journal is winding down the successful blog. We will continue to offer the content Indian readers want through the more popular paths of distribution: WSJ subscriptions, apps and social media.

The Wall Street Journal will continue to maintain some blogs, such as Real Time Economics, MoneyBeat, and the Health Blog.

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